Vocal Area Network logo VAN Feature

Melodia Women's Choir premieres New York composer Allison Sniffin in a concert of Latin American reflections
by Cynthia L. Cooper for Vocal Area Network
Posted November 16, 2006

Composer Allison SniffinJourneys across time, geography and cultures converge when Melodia Women's Choir premieres its new commissioned work by composer Allison Sniffin, Óyeme con los ojos (Hear Me with Your Eyes), at Merkin Hall in New York City on November 18, 2006 at 8 PM.

Sung in Spanish and conducted by Cynthia Powell, the text for Sniffin's stunning composition is based on poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a virtuoso poet, scholar, feminist and nun from 17th century Mexico. The work incorporates the 30 soprano and alto voices of Melodia, a narrator, chamber musicians and an ensemble using authentic Aztec instruments.

A performer with the Meredith Monk Ensemble and an independent composer, Sniffin responded enthusiastically when Jenny Clarke, founder and producer of Melodia, suggested Sor Juana's writing as the source for a new work. At the time, a painting of the so-called "Phoenix of Mexico" appeared in a portraiture show at The Hispanic Society. "I was so impressed by Sor Juana's intelligence, courage and impassioned pursuit of her art," said Clarke.

Sniffin dove into an investigation of Sor Juana, who was born in Mexico in 1648 at a time when Spain ruled the ancient lands. Known for her insatiable thirst for learning, Sor Juana wrote wide-ranging poetry, plays and compositions, becoming celebrated in her time for her wit, irony and scope. "Sor Juana was an enlightened thinker, this brilliant light of a woman." said Sniffin. "Her mind was always making connections between different areas." The Church silenced Sor Juana in 1690, but not before she completed a treatise supporting the intellectual capacities of women.

Embarking on a personal pilgrimage, Sniffin traveled south, immersing herself in art, language, sounds and Sor Juana's past. She searched out the grounds of the San Jeronimo convent, now a university in Mexico City named after the illustrious nun. Archivists preserved some of the old stone quarters. "When I walked in, I felt as though I stepped into another time," said Sniffin.

But it was back at home that she found a collaborator to help her fulfill her vision of combining Sor Juana's poetry with an exploration of her multi-dimensional thinking and the tensions of the times. In addition to Baroque sounds of a harpsichord, cello and flute, Sniffin decided to add ancient Aztec rhythms. Pre-Columbian music specialist Alfredo Villelo in New Jersey shared his knowledge and opened his studio of authentic hand-made instruments, including a carved Teponaztils log drum, Coyolli leg rattles and clay bird-shaped ocarinas.

The title of the work, Hear Me with Your Eyes, is taken from the line of a Sor Juana poem, but, using multiple Sor Juana texts, is subtitled by Sniffin as "Sor Juana on the Nature of Love." In it, a narrator coolly analyzes love. "But the choir interjects with musically varied responses from Sor Juana's writings, each a window into a different type of love," said Sniffin. Included are a slippery Tango, a jubilant Corrido templado, a tender Cantilena, and a poem in the native Nahuatl language that recalls the goddess Tonantzin. In Bolero Matiz, Sor Juana "defends her love of knowledge to the Church, insisting that human intelligence is not at odds with the divine, but confirms it," said Sniffin.

At the conclusion, a series of dissonances are reconciled by sudden harmonic shift. "It's as if you throw a ball in the air and you keep throwing balls but before they come back down, the earth would come up to meet them," said Sniffin. "When I was writing the last movement, I got chills. It was almost a mystical moment for me," she said.

Melodia Women's Choir, now in its fourth year, incorporates other classical reflections of Latin America in its concert. They include the U.S. premiere of Tres ambientes nocturnos (Three Ambient Nocturnes for Women's Chorus) by Jorge Cordoba, an award-winning Mexican composer and conductor, and a choral composition by Latin American cellist Pablo Casals. More information is on the Melodia website, www.melodiawomenschoir.org.

The concert of Melodia Women's Choir will be held Saturday, November 18, 2006 at 8 PM at Merkin Concert Hall, at the Kaufman Center, 129 West 67th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue) in New York City. Tickets are $20 in advance, and $25 at the door, and are available from Merkin Concert Hall, www.merkinconcerthall.org (212-501-3330). The Melodia phone line is 212-252-4134.

Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist in New York City, who has written for many publications, including Glamour, Marie Claire, Women's Enews, Tom Paine.com, Poz and Ms. She is an avid choral audience member, and on the board of Melodia Women's Choir of NYC.

Content Contact: Cynthia L. Cooper.
Revision Date: November 16, 2006.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

 Vocal Area Network logo